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Joe Biden, Truth-teller

From The Scrapbook

Oct 17, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 05 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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What is galling is the reluctance of his publisher, HarperOne, to admit that. The Scrapbook was struck by the way the word “authorized” is used not just as a description of the book but blazoned right across the cover as a kind of sales pitch. Back in the 1980s, when the Rev. Tutu was speaking truth to power and his backers among the 1968 generation were assuming their positions at the commanding heights of government and society, the claim of a biography to be “authorized” was totally out of fashion. It reeked of a corrupt bargain whereby some plutocratic eminence (or his estate) bartered a collection of vital archives to an on-the-make scholar in exchange for a favorable report to posterity. It was the sort of fuddy-duddy indulgence that the likes of Carter and Geldof and Santana promised to do away with.

While the moral stakes of dismantling apartheid were clear, the right course of action was not. If it had been, there would have been a Nelson Mandela on every street corner. At the height of the Cold War, South Africa was a complex and delicate problem. The word “authorized” in Tutu’s biography constitutes a promise to the reader that he will encounter none of that complexity. Can you imagine the howls if some anti-Communist activist of the 1980s​—​Vladimir Bukovsky, say, or Armando Valladares​—​were the subject of a don’t-you-dare-say-anything-skeptical-about-him biography like Tutu: Authorized? “Authorized”—the word is worth a thousand pictures.

Street People

Looking at photos of the motley crew of Wall Street protesters last week, The Scrapbook was reminded of Marion Magid’s deathless quip about an earlier generation of such “activists.” Norman Podhoretz memorably told the story in his 2002 Francis Boyer Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute:

One day in the year 1960, I was invited to address a meeting of left-wing radicals. For my sins​—​sins of which I have been repenting for more than three decades by now​—​I was a leading member of this then tiny movement. The main issue around which it had first begun to coalesce was nuclear disarmament. But the subject on which I had been asked to speak was a new one that had barely begun to show the whites of its eyes. It was the possibility of American military involvement in a faraway place of which we knew little​—​a place called Vietnam.

Accompanying me that evening was the late Marion Magid, a member of my staff at Commentary magazine, of which I had recently become the editor. As we entered the drafty old hall on Union Square in Manhattan, Marion surveyed the fifty or so people in the audience, and whispered to me: “Do you realize that every young person in this room is a tragedy to some family or other?”

As Podhoretz went on to point out, it may have been a “bedraggled-looking assemblage” there that night, but appearances can be deceptive. 

No one would have dreamed that these young people, and the generation about to descend politically and culturally from them, would within the blink of a historical eye be hailed as “the best informed, the most intelligent, and the most idealistic this country has ever known.” These words, incredibly, would emanate from what the new movement regarded as the very belly of the beast: from, to be specific, the mouth of Archibald Cox, a professor at the Harvard Law School and later Solicitor General of the United States. Similar encomia would also ooze unctuously out of parents, teachers, clergymen, artists, and journalists.

More incredible yet, the ideas and attitudes of the new movement, cleaned up but essentially unchanged, would within a mere ten years turn one of our two major parties upside down and inside out. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy famously declared that we would “pay any price, bear any burden,” and so on, “to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” By 1972, George McGovern, nominated for President by Kennedy’s own party, was campaigning on the slogan, “Come Home, America.” It was a slogan that almost perfectly reflected the ethos of the embryonic movement that I had addressed in Union Square only about a decade before.

Sentences We Didn’t Finish

‘Mr. Netanyahu has also undermined Israeli security by burning bridges with Israel’s most important friend in the region, Turkey. Now there is also the risk of clashes in the Mediterranean between Israeli and Turkish naval vessels. That’s one reason Defense Secretary Leon Panetta scolded the Israeli government a few days ago for .  .  . ” (Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times, October 6).

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